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Abstract We examine the formation of property rights in land during the early settlement by the Dutch of the Cape Colony at the southern tip of Africa. After its founding in 1652 as a provisioning outpost for ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the colonial government promoted settlement initially by granting land with well-specified and enforced property rights in restricted zones near Cape Town. By 1714 it transitioned to accommodate rapidly expanding settlement by creating a weaker form of property rights, the loan farm, which was imprecisely defined and had limited government enforcement. We develop a profit-maximizing monopsony model to explain the VOC’s choice to transition from the better-specified land grant to the less well-specified loan farm. We conclude that the decline in the population size and ability of the Khoikhoi, the Cape’s original inhabitants, to organize effective resistance to the Dutch invasion was critical to the transition, as it lowered the costs of private enforcement of settlers’ territorial claims. The choice of property rights thus enabled and encouraged the rapid taking by European settlers of the western Cape of Africa for the expansion of the Dutch colony’s pastoral economy.